4/14/2004, Boston Globe
by Bryan Bender
WASHINGTON — Five months before Sept. 11, 2001, the officers responsible for defending American airspace wanted to test their ability to prevent a hijacked airliner from being crashed into the Pentagon, but the scenario was rejected by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as impractical, a Joint Chiefs spokesman confirmed yesterday.
The disclosure was made after a government watchdog group released a leaked e-mail from a former official at the North American Air Defense Command. In the message, the official told colleagues a week after the attacks that in April 2001 NORAD requested that war games run by the Joint Chiefs include an ”event having a terrorist group hijack a commercial airline . . . and fly it into the Pentagon.”
Last night, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Commander Dan Hetlage confirmed the account, saying: ”That scenario was rejected because it would have become a whole exercise in and of itself. It wasn’t looked on at the time as being practicable.”
The NORAD proposal is the clearest sign yet that national security officials were worried before 9/11 about terrorists using hijacked airliners as missiles, despite testimony that senior leaders, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, didn’t know of such concerns.
A secret Aug. 6, 2001, memo prepared for President Bush said Al Qaeda terrorists in the United States might be planning to hijack airliners, but it did not raise the possibility that Al Qaeda could slam those planes into buildings — let alone the Pentagon, which was struck by American Airlines Flight 77.
Rice testified before the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks last week that ”it did not raise the possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles.”
However, she held out the possibility that some government officials might have raised concerns, without senior officials’ knowledge, about such a mode of attack.
Officials at NORAD apparently were concerned. But the e-mail said, the US Pacific Command, which was overseeing the exercises simulating a war with North Korea, ”didn’t want it because it would take attention away from their exercise objectives, and Joint Staff action officers rejected it as too unrealistic.”
The author of the message, a former NORAD official, could not be located yesterday.
Peter Stockton, chief investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, said yesterday he was told by the source who provided the memo that a special forces officer attached to the NORAD command at the time had first proposed the Pentagon scenario be practiced.
Concerns that terrorists might use hijacked airliners as missiles dates back to the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, when jets were placed on patrol to guard against such a threat.
Testifying before the 9/11 commission yesterday, former FBI Director Louis Freeh said that ”I believe it came up in a series of these, as we call them, special events.”
But Freeh said, ”I never was aware of a plan that contemplated commercial airliners being used as weapons after a hijacking.”